Emotional Design (ED)

Your constantly-updated definition of Emotional Design (ED) and collection of videos and articles

What is Emotional Design (ED)?

Emotional design is the concept of how to create designs that evoke emotions which result in positive user experiences. Designers aim to reach users on three cognitive levels—visceral, behavioral and reflective—so users develop positive associations (sometimes including negative emotions) with products, brands, etc.

“Everything has a personality: everything sends an emotional signal. Even where this was not the intention of the designer, the people who view the website infer personalities and experience emotions.”

— Don Norman, UX Design Pioneer

In this video, Professor Alan Dix explains why considering emotions is vital when you design experiences.

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© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

How Emotional Design Anticipates and Accommodates Users’ Needs and Responses

Designers should focus on users’ needs in their interactions with products or services. The functionality of a design should help users achieve their goals as efficiently and effectively as possible. However, a designer must also be keenly aware of their user’s responses—which are naturally emotional. As rational as people may like to think they are, emotions are at the heart of how humans interpret reality. Positive experiences drive curiosity. They help motivate us to grow as individuals. Negative experiences help us prevent repeated mistakes. However, these not-so-positive experiences can sometimes be fun—consider the chilling thrills of horror movies. Likewise, users associate feelings with what they encounter. They also have tempers; some get frustrated faster than others. The fact is that the emotional design of a product or service affects its success—and thus the bottom line. Whether or not they realize it, users have sophisticated thought processes going on most of the time. So, you must address three levels of cognitive responses when you design:

  1. Visceral: Users’ gut reactions to or their first impressions of a design; e.g., an uncluttered user interface suggests ease of use.

  2. Behavioral: Users subconsciously evaluate how a design helps them achieve goals and how easily. They should feel satisfied that they’re in control, with minimum effort required.

  3. Reflective: After they encounter your design, users will consciously judge its performance and benefits, including value for money. If they’re happy, they’ll keep using it, form emotional bonds with it and tell their friends.

How Does Emotional Design Affect User Experience

Emotional design can significantly impact user experience (UX) in several ways, here’s how:  

  1. Create a Connection: Products designed with emotional appeal can create a deeper bond between the user and the product. When users feel an emotional connection, they are more likely to have a positive experience and develop loyalty to the brand or product.

    Apple products, such as the iPhone, are a prime example of how brands can create emotional connections with their users. The sleek design, intuitive interface, and the status symbol associated with Apple products create a deep emotional bond. Many Apple users are not just loyal; they are passionate advocates of the brand.

  2. Usability and Satisfaction: A product that evokes positive emotions is often perceived as easier to use. Emotional design can make users more forgiving of minor usability issues and can increase overall satisfaction with the product.

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    Google's search engine exemplifies this. Its simple and clean interface, coupled with fast and relevant results, creates a positive user experience. Even if users encounter occasional irrelevant results, the overall efficiency and user-friendly design keep satisfaction high.

  3. Memorability: Emotional experiences are more likely to be remembered than neutral ones. If a product can evoke a strong positive emotional response, users are more likely to recall and return to it.

    The classic Coca-Cola bottle design has a unique, recognizable shape that evokes nostalgia and makes it memorable. Even in a market flooded with soft drinks, the Coca-Cola bottle stands out and is instantly identifiable, often associated with positive emotions and memories.

An image showing the evolution of the Coca-Cola Bottle design.

The instantly recognizable Coca-Cola bottle has been around since 1957.

© Coca-Cola Company, Fair Use

  1. Differentiation: In a crowded market, emotional design can help a product stand out. By appealing to users’ emotions, designers can differentiate their products from competitors’ offerings.

    Dyson vacuum cleaners turn a mundane task into a more satisfying experience. With their innovative design, which showcases the technology inside, and the ease of use, they differentiate themselves with emotional design. They’re not just functionally different but also emotionally appealing. 

  2. Motivation and Engagement: Emotional design can motivate users to engage more deeply with a product. For example, a game that evokes excitement and joy can keep players coming back, while a well-designed educational app can make learning more enjoyable and engaging.

    Video games like The Legend of Zelda demonstrate how emotional design in games increases engagement. They are designed to evoke excitement and joy with their engaging storylines, immersive worlds, and rewarding gameplay motivate players to continue exploring and returning to the game. 

  3. User Well-being: Thoughtful emotional design can contribute to the user's well-being. Products that are designed to be calming, reassuring, or joyful can have a positive impact on the user's mental state.

    The Headspace app is designed to promote mental well-being. Its friendly animations, soothing color palette, and easy-to-follow guided meditations create a calming experience. The app's design helps reduce stress and anxiety, which positively impacts users' mental health.

  4. Brand Perception: The emotions evoked by a product can reflect on the brand as a whole. A product that makes users feel valued and happy can improve the overall perception of the brand.

    The branding and product design of TOMS Shoes, which includes a promise to help a person in need for every product purchased, creates a powerful emotional response. This strategy makes consumers feel they are contributing to a good cause, which improves their perception of the brand and fosters a sense of community and goodwill.

How to Apply Emotional Design

To apply emotional design, a designer first needs a good functional design to work with. A deep understanding of users ( gained through UX research) is essential. Here are some ways to apply emotional design:

  1. Inject a signature personality: A face/mascot for users to identify with that suits a brand/organization/industry (e.g., MailChimp’s Monkey, Freddie).

  2. Engage users as a character. Include personal touches in all tasks, to reinforce the illusion of a personable helper who knows users like an old friend.

  3. Use color/contrast advantageously (e.g., blue for banking = trustworthiness).

    © Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

  4. Craft copy with the right tone to inspire or accommodate emotions. Write appropriate terms/phrases (e.g., Slack’s “You’re here! The day just got better.” greeting). Use fonts and styles that suit the desired image.

  5. Customize microcopy (labels, etc.) users can relate to which matches your other copy’s voice/tone.

  6. Apply video/sound to carry messages “in character” (like in the above).

  7. Personalize the experience for different users. (E.g., show users what else they might like, based on their information.)

  8. Offer prizes and surprises (e.g., let users check how many likes they have and find new log-in background images). Consider including Easter eggs.

  9. Use storytelling.

  10. Maintain attention to detail, especially on error messages. Include polite, light-hearted/humorous messages to alleviate users’ frustration whenever problems arise (e.g., downtime). Consider treats to compensate for inconveniences—e.g., chances to win account upgrades.

On the Interaction Design Foundation’s 404 error page, we use light-hearted language to try to alleviate frustration—and a small treat in the form of an article on great 404 pages.

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Above all, to creative positive emotional engagement, you must have a friendly presence in your design—to show users you know them. Reinforce this with happy customer testimonials and pictures of your office/team. Your design should look different from competitors’. It should also feel different, as a reliable, pleasurable part of users’ lives. Attractive designs that accommodate users’needs and feelings give the impression they work better, too. Whatever the emotions your design conjures in users, these feelings will affect the bottom line. Even a minor oversight can trigger the wrong impression overall.

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Learn More about Emotional Design

Take our Emotional Design course.

Read Smashing Magazine’s in-depth, example-filled piece on Emotional Design.

This blog is loaded with industry insights and examples.

For an insightful view of Emotional Design from the Grand Old Man of User Experience himself, Don Norman, read his book on the subject.

Questions related to Emotional Design

What is emotional design in UX?

Emotional design in UX involves crafting design elements to evoke specific user emotions. It goes beyond mere functionality, aiming to create a memorable user experience. This video discusses the incorporation of emotional design in UX. It emphasizes four threads of user experience:

The sensual thread (immediate sensory experience)

Deeper emotional level (relationship and feelings)

Compositional level (integration with past experiences)

Spatio-temporal thread (influence of time and place)

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Emotional design fosters a deeper connection between users and the product. It does so by integrating aesthetics, usability, and storytelling. The goal is to create designs that resonate with the users. It leaves a lasting and positive impact on users’ perceptions and interactions.

What are the three levels of emotional design?

Norman’s emotional design theory has three levels: visceral, behavioral, and reflective. The visceral level is about immediate reactions to how something looks and feels. The behavioral level focuses on usability and how well a product does its job. Finally, the reflective level involves thinking about and interpreting the design, affecting emotions. These levels combine aesthetics, functionality, and meaning to shape user experiences. 

This article on Norman’s three levels of design explores how these levels contribute to the user experience. It addresses immediate sensory responses and more profound emotional and cognitive aspects throughout the design process.

What are the principles of emotional design?

By incorporating emotional design principles, designers can create products that function well and resonate emotionally, providing users with a better experience.

  • Aesthetics: Focus on how the design looks and feels. It aims to create an immediate positive reaction.

  • Usability: Ensure the design is practical and easy to use, enhancing the user’s experience in performing tasks.

  • Storytelling: Convey a narrative through the design, allowing users to engage and connect with the product.

  • Meaningful Interaction: Design for meaningful user interactions, fostering a positive and memorable experience.

  • Reflection: Encourage users to contemplate and interpret the design, building a deeper emotional connection.

This chapter, “User Experience and Experience Design,” delves into the significance of emotional design principles in crafting a positive and impactful digital experience.

What is the value of emotional design?

Emotional design enhances user experiences by creating a meaningful and memorable connection. It goes beyond functionality, influencing how users feel about and interact with a design. Users are likelier to remember and engage with products that evoke positive emotions. It results in a lasting impact on brand perception and success. In essence, the value of emotional design lies in its ability to forge deeper, more meaningful connections with users.

This article on how to put emotions in your design emphasizes the importance of tapping into users’ emotions to enhance the overall user experience. 

Is good design emotional design?

Good design often incorporates elements of emotional design. However, these two concepts are not synonymous. A good design is a functional, user-friendly, aesthetically pleasing solution and meets its intended purpose. Conversely, an emotional design goes beyond mere functionality and aesthetics to consider the emotional impact on users. It aims to bring positive emotions, create a memorable experience, and establish a meaningful connection. 

A design that blends design principles with emotional elements is functional and creates a lasting positive impression, boosting user satisfaction and loyalty. Watch this video on design principles for insights into crafting a robust and user-friendly experience.

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What are the four emotional types?

The concept of emotional types in design is not standardized. However, a common framework includes four emotional dimensions:

  1. Happy: Designs that evoke joy, satisfaction, and positivity.

  2. Sad: Engaging designs that may elicit feelings of empathy or reflection.

  3. Angry: Designs that provoke a sense of urgency, passion, or intensity.

  4. Scared: Elements that instill a sense of caution, excitement, or anticipation.

These emotional dimensions explain how different design elements can impact users. It allows designers to tailor their creations to evoke specific emotional responses.

Read Plutchik’s Psycho-evolutionary Theory of Emotion to learn more about the different types of emotions.

What is the golden rule of design in HCI?

The golden rule of design in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) focuses on creating user-friendly interfaces. The video below introduces HCI and outlines two sides of HCI:

  • An academic discipline studying how people interact with technology, particularly computers

  • An applied design discipline focused on creating interventions that impact people.

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HCI requires a balance between technical knowledge, analytical skills, and a people-centric attitude. This balance helps in creating meaningful solutions for users.

What is a sponge personality?

A “sponge personality” is an individual who is highly receptive to emotions and experiences. Like a sponge absorbs liquid, a sponge personality tends to absorb emotions from their surroundings. 

This concept underscores the idea that design elements, like colors, shapes, and user interactions, can impact individuals with varying personalities. Understanding the sponge personality helps designers create emotionally resonant experiences. These designs can cater to users with heightened sensitivity to the emotional aspects of design.

What personality is an empath?

An empath is an individual who has a heightened ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Empathy is a personality trait of emotional intelligence. It is an absolute ideal in design and is one of the traits that differentiates good design from bad design. 

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Some key characteristics of an empathic personality include:

  • High affinity towards the emotions of others and may feel those emotions as if they were their own.

  • They feel compassion and want to help and support others.

  • They have strong intuition and can sense and understand others’ needs and emotions.

  • Empaths listen well and support others to express their feelings.

Where to learn more about emotional design?

Emotional design is a strategic approach. It goes beyond functionality. The goal is to create a profound connection between users and a product or interface. Designers use aesthetics, usability, and storytelling to create specific emotions. This enhances user satisfaction and engagement. 

To learn more about emotional design, dive into our course and learn how to create emotionally resonant product designs. The course will also help you understand the factors influencing human reactions to a design with real-life examples.

Literature on Emotional Design (ED)

Here’s the entire UX literature on Emotional Design (ED) by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Emotional Design (ED)

Take a deep dive into Emotional Design (ED) with our course Emotional Design — How to Make Products People Will Love .

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